As we come close to the conclusion of the penitential season of Advent and pass into the joyous season of Christmas, we should take some time and consider Jesus—God incarnate as man—and how his incarnation is mirrored in so many other incarnational elements of the faith. The word ‘incarnation’ derives from the Latin word for ‘meat’ or ‘flesh,’ and literally means ‘enfleshment’ or to ‘take on flesh.’
The Incarnation (capitalized) refers specifically to Jesus Christ’s divinity. God Himself condescended to become incarnate as a man, flesh and bone, just like you and me. He lived a human life and, ultimately, was put to death on our behalf. While Jesus’s death on the cross and subsequent resurrection, celebrated on Easter, make up the central celebration of the Christian faith, the celebration of Christ’s incarnation and birth at Christmas is only very slightly less important. Christ’s death and resurrection couldn’t happen if he hadn’t first been born, God incarnate as man.
But the incarnationality of the faith isn’t limited to Jesus’s Incarnation. The faith itself is incarnational—or ‘fleshy.’ While many post-reformation Christians have tried to establish an emotion-based, ‘faith alone’ head-faith that treats the flesh as something to be ashamed-of and ignored, Christianity has always been a sensory, experiential faith rich with symbols, liturgies, ceremonies, and traditions that speak both to the soul and to the body. In Catholicism (and Orthodoxy), we experience the faith ‘in the flesh’—with touch, substance, action, symbols, sounds, smells, and more. The faith touches our flesh, and our flesh touches the faith, and that’s a good thing.
We baptize with water on the head. We confirm into the faith with an anointing of oil. We mark our prayers and blessings with a physical sign of the cross. We confess our sins with our voices, and receive absolution with our ears. Our high Masses include elements of sight (icons, vestments, colors), sounds (hymns, chants, prayers, readings), smells (incense), tastes (bread and/or wine), and touch (signs of the cross, bowing, kneeling, maybe a sprinkling of Holy Water)—all five of our fleshy senses—and even our lowest, least-formal Masses still hit at least three or four of them. We believe, in accordance with the Scriptural accounts of the Last Supper and the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse in John 6, that God is physically incarnate in the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist, and we get to receive him with our bodies. He still condescends to be physically present among us, every day, all around the world, in every Catholic and Orthodox Church.
We are creatures of both body and soul. We’re not one or the other, any more than Jesus Christ is just God or just man. We can’t separate or compartmentalize ourselves into body (air, food, water, senses) and soul (prayer, faith, reason, thought). They are intertwined and inseparable until death, and our bodies and our souls both have an essential place in the Christian faith. Confessing your sins, for example, is an act of the soul. You must examine your conscience and be contrite. But it is also an act of the body; you have go to the Church, enter the confessional, state your sins, and receive absolution. The state of your soul is essential, no doubt, but sacramental reconciliation with God requires the unified action of both body and soul. Almost all religious acts, including all seven Sacraments, are acts of both body and soul. If you do just one or the other—works without faith, or faith without works—you are missing half of what you need.
A little over 2,000 years ago, God—pure spirit, omnipotent, omniscient—condescended to become a creature of body and soul as well. He was born of the Virgin Mary, God incarnate as man, soul and flesh united. It is in his footsteps, and by his command, that we continue to preach and teach a faith of both spirit and flesh, body and soul. It is a quintessentially human faith in this respect, more than any other. I hope that you will consider this uniquely human dichotomy of body and soul this Christmas, as you consider a God who condescended to share it with us. God bless you, and merry Christmas!